[Shattered] Ice 07

Chapter Seven – A Rock and A Hard Place

“Try using Bolt on it!” Cloud ordered, panting heavily. He lifted his Nail Bat again, darting forward to attack the strange creature. It struck with a heavy clang before bouncing backwards, unable to even pierce the thick armor. He gritted his teeth in anger, trying to find a weak spot when he heard the crackle of electricity.

Cloud had only seconds to duck away before the Bolt 2 crashed into the creature from Nanaki’s cast. Yellow and white crackled over their enemy before fizzling into nothingness, doing very little damage if any at all. Panting, the human backed away until he stood beside the lion-wolf, wondering if there was any way to defeat their opponent.

“It’s not working!” Yuffie exclaimed, skidding to a stop on the other side of Nanaki as she easily caught her flying shuriken between two fingers. The ninja was huffing slightly, sweat streaming from her forehead and causing her to push up at her headband. The metal beast had already gotten hold of her once, and her arm was bleeding from a gash twelve inches across.

A dagger whistled through the air, slamming into the monster’s nearly impenetrable armor before dropping harmlessly to the ground. Cloud traced the trajectory of the weapon, finding Reeve sidling up behind them, already digging with a free hand into his pocket as he came up beside Yuffie.

“Here,” Reeve said softly. “Drink this.” He calmly handed her the bottle filled with the bubbly, violet liquid, even while keeping his gaze carefully trained on the monster. His other hand, the right, held another dagger at the ready, prepared to throw should the need arise.

The noise of gunshots could be heard over his voice, easily proving Barret’s presence on the battlefield. However, the dark-skinned man was preoccupied with taking out the hordes of ShinRa soldiers that accompanied the initial attack.

“Thanks!” The ninja grinned before downing the potion in one gulp. Almost immediately her wound began to close up, slowly knitting together until nothing but a wide, pink scar remained since the potion had the strength to close it up. Lifting up her shuriken with one hand and mentally reviewing her materia with the other, Yuffie quickly jumped back into battle, letting out a battle cry as she went.

The metal monster that they were struggling to destroy was unlike anything they had ever faced before. Not only was it sporting several rather large guns with laser locking, but it seemed to have eight claw-like arms with haste-induced speed. Further, its bluish, steel-like armor was all but unbreakable, taking every strike of Cloud’s sword like they were nothing more harmful than a pebble. No one could understand where ShinRa had come up with the technology and the design.

The situation escalated from bad to worse as ShinRa soldiers streamed around them, attacking as well. The mass of enemies had attacked them unexpectedly, destroying the house they were staying in and forcing them to abandon it. Predictably, Barret suspected a spy was involved, and at this point, Cloud was more than inclined to agree.

Now, everyone stood outside, backs to the burning debris of their shelter, grimacing at their fate as they faced down scores of soldiers and a metallic monster hell bent on ripping them to pieces. No one had any inclination that ShinRa knew where they were or what was going on, and since Reeve wasn’t in contact with the mega corporation anymore, it left much for debate.

“What the #$@%&!!”

Cloud shifted his eyes to the right, easily recognizing the sound of Cid’s cursing. He caught sight of both the pilot and Vincent skidding to a stop at the sight of the scene before them, the Captain gaping in surprise. Evidently they had heard the explosion and came running from wherever it was they had disappeared. It was strange that they were together; Cloud hadn’t thought they were that close.

Bullets nipped the ground at his feet, and Cloud leapt to the side, even as he threw out a Fire2 at the soldiers attacking him from behind. Barret appeared out of nowhere, standing back to back with him as he returned fire with the sneaky soldiers. Gripping his sword more firmly, the blond turned to face the monster, again sweeping the battlefield with a calculating eye. Immediately, his blade came up, blocking a razored arm that had been directed at his head, and the two metals struck with a resounding clack. He quickly retracted and slashed down, actually managing to bend the arm with the force of his blow but not cutting. The arm withdrew, and he heaved a sigh of relief as Cid and Vincent joined in the battle.

“What the hell is going on, Spike?” the pilot demanded, cigarette already bouncing from his lips. He pulled out his Trident, spinning the object between his fingers as he readied for battle. Beside him, Vincent already had out his Silver Rifle, calmly and effortlessly taking out any soldier that ventured too near.

Cloud shook his head in response. “I don’t know. It came out of nowhere.”

Rapid gunfire from the huge monster forced them to dive in opposite directions to avoid the spray. Cloud easily rolled to the side, quickly springing to his feet as he tried to keep an eye on those under his command. Before he could even catch a glimpse, another peppering of bullets had him rolling on the ground, even as he heard the sound of Yuffie’s shuriken striking against the monster, only to bounce away harmlessly.

“It’s not going down!” the ninja exclaimed over the din of the battle. She sounded out of breath and annoyed. “I can’t even get through its armor!”

“It is susceptible to nothing,” the fire-lion called out, the yellow glow of a cast Sense leaving his body. “With that much power, the thing is nearly unstoppable,” Nanaki explained, claws skidding across the rocky ground as he swiftly dodged two flailing arms. In retaliation, he sent another Bolt2, the lightning arcing across the metal and doing very little damage.

The blond leapt to his feet, coming face to face with two weaker soldiers. He quickly bashed them down, neither having an opportunity to call out as they died. He tried to ignore the blood staining the ground and his weapon as he turned back towards the main battle.

Reeve sprang into view, tossing his knives at a few soldiers with deadly accuracy. It appeared that he had no qualms about returning fire at those who might have once been his allies, and Cloud entertained the belief that Reeve was truly on his side. He didn’t seem like a bad guy, just someone caught up in the shit of ShinRa like everyone else. Truthfully, half of their party once had belonged in ShinRa.

Greased Lightning!” Yuffie released her limit break, raining power on the creature, but it still seemed unaffected, pushing forward with determination. At her side, Nanaki growled, his body slowly beginning to take on the hue of his own limit break.

Bullets from both side raced across the battlefield, the large boom of Barret’s Rocket Punch and the steady drone of Vincent’s Silver Rifle more comforting than the high-pitched rapid fire of the soldier’s automatic weapons.

“Everyone get back!” Cid ordered suddenly. The pilot had a plan… or an inkling of one. Either way, it was sure to be dangerous and crazy.

Immediately, all members of their party pulled back as well as they could, gathering towards the middle of the battlefield nearly back to back. But it wasn’t until then that Cloud even realized that someone might be missing. Yet, before he could count heads or take another look around, Cid pulled out a stick of dynamite and lit it on his cigarette. The dynamite hissed and spat as fire raced along the wick to reach the explosive center. The pilot quickly threw it at the horde of soldiers, even as he pulled out another to toss at the monster. A smirk crossed his features as duel explosions rocked the area, bright orange and red flame racing up into a true blaze.

Cries of pain rose up as the sound of the automatic weapons firing disappeared. When Cloud’s vision cleared, he was able to see that the ShinRa soldiers had been defeated, lying on the ground, either unconscious or dead. Unfortunately, the metal beast was still going strong.

Beside him, Vincent shook his head, idly eyeing his weapon’s cache of ammo, beginning to run low. “We do not have the capacity to defeat that.”

“I think vampy’s right,” Barret growled, his face grim as he laid a covering fire down, hoping to distract the creature setting its robotic sights on their group. Vincent shot him a poisonous look but didn’t bother to respond.

“So what? We should just run?” Yuffie asked incredulously, wincing as she pulled on her scar. She absolutely hated the idea of having to run away for any reason. It felt cowardly, even when faced with the machine in front of her.

Before Cloud could respond, however, the unnamed monster roared, and a giant revolving gun appeared out of an opening in its shoulder. There was a sudden click. A sudden feeling of dread descended upon him.

Mako blue eyes widened. “Running is good,” he stated with a nod as the Nail Bat was quickly placed in its sheath. His gaze darted to the side, catching a new path that led deeper into the mountains. With any luck, they could lose ShinRa in Coral Valley. Without another thought, he dashed towards the path, hoping that the others were smart enough to follow him.

His booted feet pounded across the ground, scrabbling for purchase in the loose grit and rocks. He could hear the others behind him and dared a look over his shoulder. It was at that moment that bullets began to fly around them, whizzing beyond their shoulders. He nearly tripped on a rock in the path but regained his balance.

As they ran, he could only hope that they would make it.

– – –

“It appears our quarry has escaped,” Rude remarked in a dry tone, a slight frown on his face. He sighed, pulling his communications device from his pocket and pressing a button to send out the call. He gazed over the battlefield as he waited for his partner to pick up, noting that most of the ground troops had been defeated. That was not surprising.

Why ShinRa was bothered to care about the fate of Cloud and his merry gang of heroes Rude didn’t understand. It wasn’t as if they were focusing their attention on destroying ShinRa anymore, instead trying to save the world. Was that so bad?

Bah. It wasn’t his job to consider such things anyway. He was a paid to kill, to hunt, and to destroy… thinking was not in the job description.

“Dude, Rude, ShinRa got their ass kicked, yo.” Typical of Reno, not even a hello when he answered his phone, just straight to the point. Even when Tseng called he couldn’t be bothered with honorifics.

Rude grimaced. “It doesn’t count if we were ordered to do so,” he replied, eyes flickering over the battlefield. The unconscious bodies of their grunts littered the ground. Most were probably dead, the unfortunate bastards, but such was life working for a ruthless and unforgiving company like ShinRa. The pay sucked, the hours were even worse, but there was little better work they could do.

The moment AVALANCHE fled, Rude had ordered the immediate shut down of the Scorpios I. Its presence was no longer necessary. They had only brought the machine on the order of Heidegger. The Scorpios was designed to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of its opponent, so that it would quickly destroy them the next time they were encountered.

Attacking AVALANCHE in the City of the Ancients had served two purposes, testing the Scorpios I and retrieving their “comrade.” After receiving the phone call about Reeve not only betraying ShinRa but also joining Cloud and the rest of his merry band of idiots, Rufus’ first orders were to bring in the Turks. Perhaps the bastard actually cared for his whore in some sick, sadistic fashion, but Rude grimaced at that thought. He preferred not to think about that.

All in all, the Turks, who had stayed out of the battle, hated being ordered to lose. It gave off the wrong image and had AVALANCHE believing that they were weak. But in Rufus’ mind, it was all part of the big picture. Lead the idiots into thinking they had the advantage, lull them into a state of complacency, then pounce when the time was right, effectively crushing their enemies into dust. Rufus was sadistic, he was cruel, but he was also undeniably brilliant.

Reno scoffed in his ear, causing Rude’s inner thoughts to crash. “Semantics, yo,” he commented blithely before his voice suddenly dropped, words implying more than what they claimed. “Was the traitor there?”

Rude considered the battle. An amber-eyed man, once a member of the ShinRa executive board, was now on the run for his life. He grunted in response to Reno’s query.

Let him live a while longer,” Rufus had cackled. “Let him taste his freedom before we take it from him.

Reno exhaled loudly. The red-haired Turk had been situated on the opposite side of the battlefield, his task being to retrieve their “comrade.” Rude could only assume, judging by the whining and cursing he could hear in the background, that his partner had been successful. Honestly, he hated the bitch, but a job was a job. He hated Rufus as well, but he didn’t dare speak it aloud.

Truthfully, it was the same for Reno, Elena most likely also. Their duty and loyalty was to the Turks first, ShinRa second. If Tseng ever decided to take over the company or truly rebel, Rufus ShinRa was in for it. Perhaps that was the reasoning behind their limited forces lately. The Turks were a far cry now from what they had been.

“I’m not sure how much longer I can do this, yo,” Reno said quietly into the phone. Boots crunched over dirt and rocks, and Rude could only assume that he was stepping away from their “comrade”, seeking privacy for the call.

Rude resisted the urge to sigh, adjusting the sunglasses on his nose with a leather-gloved finger. He wandered over the read-out from the Scorpios I, idly eyeing the information it presented.

“Are you going to leave the Turks?”

Reno didn’t answer, surprisingly silent for once, and Rude knew that he was thinking it over. The Turks were all the family Reno had, other than his lover. And in some ways, the redhead hadn’t yet made up his mind. He thought that by remaining in ShinRa, he was doing some good, protecting what mattered the most.

Reeve hadn’t been the only spy.

“Stop thinking,” Rude intoned, moving on in the conversation. “Do your job.” The rest went unspoken.

The younger Turk snorted. “Thanks ever so much for the advice,” he responded snarkily. “I don’t know– Would you shut the fuck up?” Rude could only assume the last was not directed to him, especially as a shrill, annoying voice rose up in the background, obviously their “comrade.” He resisted the urge to make a disgusted face. That was one bitch he loathed, and normally, Rude was respectful to all women. However, she and Scarlet were at the top of his “If I hit women, I would hit her” list.

Never mind that he once had a crush on the woman. She was beautiful, and her assets were there to be admired. Yet, he had never wanted to keep her. No, there was someone else in his heart that he desired. Their “comrade” was too loud, too boastful, and too voracious for him. Was it too odd that his tastes now ran towards brunette scientists with a quick wit?

“Damn, they don’t pay me enough for this shit!” Reno curse echoed through the phone as he and that woman continued to bicker back and forth. Rude couldn’t quite understand what she was demanding but wouldn’t be surprised if she was coming on Reno. The woman was a whore, plain and simple.

Rude resisted the urge to chuckle. It simply wasn’t in his character, and instead, he idly scanned the battlefield again, once more adjusting his sunglasses. It was past time for them to be on their way. AVALANCHE was running free in Coral Valley. Heidegger and Scarlet wanted their research. Rufus wanted his… whatever the hell that woman was. And Rude and his partner could definitely use a drink.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here, yo,” Reno insisted over the phone. “I’m buying.”

The corner of his mouth curved up in reminiscent of a smile. “You got it, boss.” And with that, his phone was shut with a tiny snap.

– – –

Their hurried flight took them straight into the confusing labyrinth just beyond the city. ShinRa didn’t give chase, not that there were many of them left to do so, and the metal beast couldn’t fit between the walls of the canyon. Or perhaps they had been allowed to escape. Cloud couldn’t be sure, but twenty minutes into their escape, he didn’t think they needed to run anymore.

He slowed his steps, bringing everyone to a halt. “I think we lost them,” he said, huffing from the exertion of their mad dash for safety. The sound of the automatic fire from the metal monstrosity still rang in his ears.

Yuffie collapsed on the ground tiredly, proclaiming how glad she was and fussing about how she was made to run. She hated running from any battle, no matter how outnumbered she was. However, Cloud easily tuned her out, well accustomed to ignoring the annoying ninja.

Reeve leaned tiredly against a nearby boulder, shoulders heaving with the exertion. Despite his skill in knife throwing, he really wasn’t that athletic. It had been a long time since he had been forced to run this way. Even his escape from ShinRa had involved planning in advance with an arrangement for a helicopter to take him to Junon where he hitched a ride to Costa del Sol on a ship. From there, Reeve had hired another helicopter to take him to Gongaga. If he hadn’t realized early on that ShinRa was already on to him, there was a good chance he would already be dead.

“What the hell was that thing?” Cid demanded angrily as he plopped to the ground. The pilot promptly pulled out a cigarette and lit it, puffing away. Surprisingly, considering the way he smoked, he wasn’t out of breath, merely aggravated with what had occurred.

Barret was the first to offer up his opinion, perfectly willing to point the finger. “ShinRa! Had ta be!” He growled, stomping about in an odd sort of pacing. He was too keyed up to even think settling down.

“Like there is anyone else it could be.” Yuffie snorted in derision, obviously not buying it. She was already regaining her energy, twirling a throwing dart in her fingers.

“Perhaps,” Nanaki commented from where he had all but collapsed on the ground; a trickle of blood leaked from a cut on his shoulder. He opened his mouth to continue when Barret rudely interrupted him.

The dark-skinned man glanced around worriedly, sudden shock taking over his features. “Where’s Tifa?” He could not see his best friend anywhere, and now that he thought about it, he could not remember her in the battle either. An eerie chill raced up his spine at what could have happened.

“She’s not here?” Cloud questioned. His gaze traveled over the faces of his friends, and not seeing Tifa among them, he blanched. How could he have not noticed that she was missing? How could he have not realized she wasn’t present during the fight?

With all the bullets and the razor-sharp arms, coupled with trying to just stay alive… dammit! He was leader! He should have been more observant.

“Damn, damn, damn!!!” Barret cursed, storming about the small clearing and going in no particular direction. “I will bet my gil that ShinRa has her now!”

Yuffie’s forehead pinched in confusion. “But what would ShinRa want with Tifa?” she asked, wondering if they really believed she was Cloud’s girlfriend or something equally impossible. They would have not reason to take her otherwise. Tifa wasn’t at all the strongest of them either.

Reeve shrugged from his position perched on a low, flat-lying rock. “I don’t know. She’s really not that important in the grand scheme of things.” He kept his gaze on the ground, as if unable to meet their eyes.

“How did ShinRa know where we were?” Vincent questioned quietly, momentarily distracting the ever-suspicious Barret. The gunman was standing a little ways off from the group, bringing up the rear and managing to look completely composed, despite the fact that he had just been running for his life away from ShinRa. He didn’t even appear to be out of breath.

“That’s a good question,” Barret muttered, eyes swiveling towards Reeve. “Any idea how to answer that, ShinRa boy?”

“You leave Reeve alone!!” Yuffie huffed angrily, rising to her feet and stepping in front of her friend, one of the few in the group that actually seemed to like her. A shuriken rose, and she fixed the suspicious man with an irritated glare. Reeve wasn’t that bad of a guy all things considered. After all, he wasn’t the one that blew up a damn city and murdered thousands in the process to “save the planet.”

“Yeah! I doubt the fool would make the same damn mistake twice,” Cid added in for good measure. He was damn tired of everyone accusing everyone else of being a spy. Sure, Reeve had fucked up once, but no one understood the circumstances. They hadn’t bothered to ask, and Cid surely was not going to condemn a man for something he didn’t understand. For all he knew, ShinRa could have held something over the man’s head… like his family. The corporation was known for doing much worse, so the blond wouldn’t put it past them.

The former executive shook his head, still unable to lift his eyes from the ground. He understood their suspicions, and there was little he could do about it.

“I am not a spy,” he murmured quietly, “not anymore. They tried to kill me. They threatened to kill him…” he whispered more to himself than to the group, but Yuffie’s sensitive ninja hearing, or so she would later claim, and Vincent’s enhanced senses picked it up. Both watched him mutely, quietly considering the significance of his words.

“So you say.” Barret sneered in reply, flexing his metal arm once more. “But I think you are just duping us again.” The loss of Tifa seemed to break any restraint he may have had. He advanced on the ex-executive, intent on beating the information out of him, and Reeve’s head snapped at the sound of his approaching footsteps. He had little moderation left within him, especially at the sight of the man that had threatened the safety of his daughter and betrayed them.

But there was a hand on his arm, restraining him. It was quite strong, too, completely halting his movements. His rage burned brighter as Barret flicked confused eyes towards the idiot who would dare stop him. It only pissed him off further when he realized that the hand belonged to Vincent, number two on his distrust list.

“Reeve is not the enemy here,” Vincent said warningly. He had been the closest to Barret at the time and had grabbed him, even before Cloud had the chance to move. He surprised himself with his actions, wondering why he even bothered defending Reeve in the first place. Perhaps it was that brief moment of kinship he had felt back in Gold Saucer when Cait Sith had first betrayed them, or maybe it was simply because Barret irritated him. Either way, he had stopped the idiot and now was faced with the man’s ire.

“Is dat so?” Barret asked, jerking his arm away. “Then mebbe I should be looking at you?” The slight twitch of his gun-arm at his side was about as subtle as a bat to the head.

Vincent narrowed his crimson eyes and opened his mouth to speak, but Cid beat him to it. “I already told ya once, jackass. Vince ain’t no spy!!” Tension rose in waves around them, a fight brewing and threatening to overspill into an outright brawl.

“Enough!!” Cloud yelled, his voice easily interrupting the dispute before it could escalate further. He fixed his companions with his most ruthless and leader-like glare, hoping to force them into silence. “Or there won’t be anything left of us for ShinRa to fight!!” he spat angrily.

Six pairs of eyes turned towards their leader. Barret had the decency to look embarrassed, though perhaps that was more due to the fact that he had been scolded by someone younger than him. Yuffie was slightly awed by their leader’s outburst, while Cid merely sucked on a cigarette. Vincent chose to sniff disdainfully as he took the smallest of steps away from the volatile Barret, as if disgusted by their nearness.

“I don’t want to think that anybody is a spy,” Cloud explained, managing to lower his voice as he ran an aggravated hand through his hair. “If we are going to do this, we have to trust each other. What good is it to argue?”

Barret harrumphed but stepped away from the two ex-ShinRa employees and crossed his arms. In turn, the former Turk moved to the outer edges of the tiny circle, eyes narrowed in deep thought. Reeve merely scooted closer to Yuffie and began looking over her other wounds.

“I don’t know how ShinRa found us, and I’m not about to start questioning everybody. As far as we know, ShinRa has Tifa and Sephiroth is heading for the Promised Land,” Cloud went on easily, slipping into his role as leader and trying to regain control of the situation. They may have fled the battle, but AVALANCHE was far from beaten. “We can’t go after both.” His last words rang across the small clearing they rested in, his meaning obvious.

Silence fell as they contemplated his words. It was a difficult choice to make: to save one of their comrades or to save the planet from their greatest foe.

Nanaki was the first to speak, tail swishing across the ground. “They won’t… hurt her, will they?”

Reeve shook his head before exhaling slowly. “If anything, they are using her as bait,” he replied quietly. “They have no reason to kill her yet, especially if they think that you will come to save her.”

“Rufus wants us to stop going after Sephiroth and rescue her instead. It is an obvious trap,” Vincent mused aloud, his fingers running over the edge of his cloak. He agreed with Reeve, finding it painfully easy to see through ShinRa’s plans. Had their abilities fallen so far in such a short time? He remembered when they had been much, much more devious.

“So what then? We gonna leave her in their hands?” Barret asked incredulously, jaw nearly agape.

Nanaki shook his head. “It appears we don’t have a choice. If she is not going to come under any harm, then we have a responsibility to this planet. We cannot allow the fate of the world to rely on ShinRa because, assuredly, that is his long-range plan. No matter what we decide, Rufus is determined to get to Sephiroth.”

“We can’t let him get there first. Let ShinRa have the Promised Land? I don’t think so!” Yuffie all but shouted, also rising. “All that materia…” she added a bit mournfully, her eyes sparkled at the thought of shining balls of magic dancing about her head. Her vote was obvious.

“We’ve gotta take that %&$% out now!” Cid exclaimed, the sound of a lighter flick accompanying his words. “For Aeris if nothing else.” It was probably his statement that affected them the most, reminding the companions of their lost member and her fate.

Mako eyes traced over his group. “Then it is decided; we are all in agreement?” Cloud asked as he looked to them expectantly. He was not about to make the decision on his own, leader or not. He wasn’t a dictator.

“I’m not!” Barret spluttered, looking at everyone else in horror. “What about Tifa?” She was his best friend! He refused to leave her in the hands of ShinRa. It would be like suffering through Dyne all over again. He had failed his friend then; he refused to fail another.

Cloud shook his head, eyes softening at Barret’s obvious confusion. “The fate of the planet is more important,” he said softly. He walked up to his friend and placed a calming hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, but you know she would have wanted it that way.”

The older man sighed and brushed off Cloud’s touch, unaccustomed to such displays. “Tch. I hate that yer right. There ain’t no other way?”

A moment of silence fell over the group. They seemed to shift amongst themselves, unnerved by the choice that they were faced with. Both Cloud and Barret had a point. Yet, no one really wanted to abandon one of their own. It seemed cheap and wrong, something that ShinRa would do. Finally, after the quiet moment stretched into an uncomfortable amount of time, Nanaki was the first to speak.

“We could always split up,” the lion-wolf suggested slowly but wisely, all the while realizing that it was futile. The idea had been more for Barret’s sake.

Cloud shook his head. “And divide our strength? Who’s to say we can defeat either foe on our own? What if one of us fails, and then that half is gone? No, it is best if we remain together. At least then, your fate will be obvious.”

“So that is that then? We are going to the ‘Promised Land’?” Reeve inquired quietly.

“Yes,” the ex-SOLDIER answered. He turned towards the path, mako eyes casting off in the direction they had already been heading. The rocky and winding path looked none too inviting, but he knew it was the road for them to take. “And, according to Sephiroth, we are already on the right path.” No one questioned how he knew or why he spoke as if Sephiroth was standing right next to him.

“Then what are we waiting for? The faster we defeat the bastard, the faster we can save Tifa,” Barret demanded, fixing everyone with his most fierce stare. It did not make anyone move any faster, but it was a good try.

Cloud bit his lip to hold back his laughter before gesturing with a thumb towards the pilot and the former executive. “Cid, Reeve, you two with me. The rest of you know what to do.”

Nothing more was said as the group split apart. Cid, Reeve, and Cloud took off first, clearing the way and marking a path. The rest were to follow after a few minutes, securing the trail behind to make sure they weren’t back attacked. It wasn’t logical for them to travel in such large groups, and so far, the strategy had worked.

Thirty minutes later, the remaining four followed after the front guard along the marked trail. Barret led the way, Yuffie watching his back. Vincent and Nanaki brought up the rear with the gunman preferring to trust his instincts and sharper eyes rather than anyone else’s’. It wouldn’t have surprised him in the least if ShinRa surprised them with a sneak attack.

At first, they all traveled in silence. No one was really interested in speaking to one another, but that was until Nanaki began to slow down, sniffing the wind cautiously. This caught Vincent’s attention, but he didn’t speak until the lion-wolf ceased his movements altogether, pausing to survey the area. Ahead of them, Barret and Yuffie continued on, none the wiser to.

The gunman drew to a halt, instantly on alert and trusting Nanaki’s keener senses. “What is it?” he asked, tensing slightly. He also began to surreptitiously scan their surrounding, searching for any signs of anger. He detected nothing, however.

Nanaki did not answer, instead watching as Barret and Yuffie got farther away. When he was satisfied with their distance, he began walking again, albeit at a much slower pace. He didn’t explain his actions, causing the gunman to grunt with irritation.

“Well?” Vincent pressed as he moved to walk at the fire-lion’s side.

Nanaki tilted his head, peering up at his human companion. “It was nothing,” he answered. “I merely wanted to keep this conversation relatively quiet. Barret is foul enough as it is. No need to tug the tail of the bear.”

“Conversation?” Vincent queried, raising one eyebrow. He was intrigued. He and Nanaki weren’t particularly close, not that he was really close with any of the others, but still, why would the lion-wolf want to speak to him in particular?

Nanaki nodded. “Yes. I wanted to speak to you without the others.”

The gunman frowned slightly. “About?”

“Not quite as bad as you might think,” he assured, “but I have noticed some things. I am not entirely naïve, you know. The pilot and you seem to have become fast friends, or so it was anyways.” Ahead of them Barret and Yuffie had begun to argue, ignoring the people behind them.

Vincent allowed himself the smallest of smiles, more one of sarcasm than amusement. “Being forced to room together does seem to have that effect on a person.”

Nanaki shook his head. “I do not think that it is entirely the case.” He paused as he considered his next words. “What happened the night of the earthquake?”

The ex-Turk was surprised, mostly because it seemed to have no relevance to anything else. “Why that night in particular? What do you know?” he asked, a scowl forming on his face.

Nanaki’s gaze shifted to the path in front of them. “Nothing, save that as far as I know, everyone was sleeping until the earthquake struck,” he said slowly, his shoulders doing something that might have been considered a shrug. “I asked everyone else, and until now, I didn’t really think to ask you two.”

“Why now?” Vincent mused aloud. “Have I missed something?”

“No.” A slight chuckle escaped from Nanaki’s mouth. “Are you going to answer my question?”

“Tch.” Vincent snapped his mouth shut, concentrating on the path in front of him. He was not about to discuss that night with Nanaki. It was a matter between Cid and he, nothing more and nothing less. He didn’t want the others prying into their affairs.

But that unnervingly penetrating gleam returned to Nanaki’s eyes as he studied the human once more. “I will take that as a no.”

“It is none of your business,” the ex-Turk all but growled.

“I see,” the fire-wolf responded, saying nothing more and instead choosing to concentrate on the path in front of him. It had become a battle of the wits, seeing who could get the most out of the other without revealing too much in turn.

Curiosity ate at Vincent, along with a desire to understand why Nanaki was so interested. He understood that the lion-wolf held more sensibilities than the rest of the group, and with Aeris gone, he was their only link to the more supernatural aspects of whatever was occurring on Gaia. Perhaps there was something he needed to know.

Finally, he broke the silence. “What is it about the earthquake that has you interested?”

The fire-lion fought the urge to smile. “Are you going to tell me what happened that night?”

He sighed inwardly, knowing he would probably have to concede that much to get his questions answered. A tit for tat was only fair, after all. The small loss of his privacy to someone he was certain could keep a secret was not too much to lose, especially if he guaranteed that the fire-lion would not repeat his words.

“Depends on what you have to offer me,” Vincent countered lowly. “I don’t make a habit of telling my affairs without good reason.”

Nanaki dipped his head. “Fair enough.” He cleared his throat. “Something has shifted, but I am not sure what yet. Still, I can I tell you that earthquakes have never occurred in that region before,” he finished, gazing at the gunman intently.

“And you think this has something to do with me?” Vincent asked with complete surprise. It made very little sense to him. Hadn’t he already had enough troubles in his life?

He was nothing more than a man, albeit a tortured and scientifically altered human, but he was a man, nonetheless. Heroic deeds were beyond him. He didn’t have the qualities within him to do anything world-changing.

“I didn’t say that,” Nanaki responded. He looked at the human expectantly, waiting for his due. “Answer my question, please.”

“Very well.” Vincent exhaled, rolling the words in his mind. He tried to word it so that he explained without truly giving anything away. “Nothing out of the ordinary, I should think, considering this day and time. Cid was having a nightmare, which pulled me out of sleep. I shook him awake, and in his half delirious state, he kissed me. In shock, I pulled away and retreated to my side of the tent. We both decided to never speak of it again.”

“It was mutual?” Nanaki inquired gently.

Vincent nodded. “Yes.”

The lion-wolf contemplated him for a moment before glancing back to the trail. “Hm.” His tail twitched behind him.

Vincent was not all pleased with Nanaki’s response. In fact, it irritated him.

“Why are you suddenly interested in me, Nanaki?” he questioned, not liking where this was going. “We have tolerated each other, but I would not say that we are friends.”

The fire-lion contemplated the question. “It is a dangerous fight that we have all undertaken. It would not do for all of us to be fighting as we are.”

Crimson eyes narrowed. “That is not a proper response.”

“But it is what I am telling you,” he stated sharply. Unperturbed by Vincent’s expression, Nanaki swiveled his lupine head up to meet Vincent glare for glare. “How can we fight together if we all stand apart?”

Vincent snorted and crossed his arms. “The blame is not mine. I never started any of it.”

“I don’t agree with that statement,” the fire-lion countered. “You and a certain pilot have been on edge with each other for quite some time now.”

It took all of his control not to gape in surprise. It became clear in that moment exactly what Nanaki had been leaning towards the entire time. Did he think himself Cid’s knight? What exactly did the lion-wolf know? And why choose now of all moments to bring up the topic?

Vincent raised a surprised eyebrow. “You are rather observant,” he commented casually.

Nanaki bowed his head, something similar to a grin appearing on his features. “I’d like to think so.”

Vincent frowned. “You still know nothing,” he stated derisively.

Golden eyes narrowed this time, even the fire-lion was becoming slightly irked by their discussion. “I know enough, and I suspect much,” he responded, a biting edge to his voice. He flicked his tail.

Vincent scowled. “Believe what you will. I do not care.”

“Just remember what I say, Vincent Valentine,” Nanaki stated fiercely, stopping in the middle of the trail. “You are not as indestructible as you think nor are events as black and white. Pride defeated you the first time; do not let it be your downfall again,” the lion-wolf murmured, his fiery eyes looking to Vincent meaningfully.

The human bristled. “Just what are you saying?” he questioned icily. “You know nothing about me.”

Nanaki responded with an even gaze. “I’m beginning to think that you are the only one who knows nothing. I am certain you will understand soon enough.” With that, he turned his eyes forward. “Barret and Yuffie are waiting for us.” He bound forward to catch up to their companions, leaving a somewhat shocked Vincent behind him.

Nanaki’s enigmatic words cleared up nothing, only serving to cause the gunman to bristle with indignation. He didn’t believe that Nanaki was being purposefully insightful, but he was pretty damn close. The fire-wolf knew something that he didn’t. Vincent was sure of it. But most of all, as he forced his body to move forward and catch with their companions, one questioned weighed heavily on his mind.

Just what did Nanaki know?

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